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X-Panda - Reflections CD (album) cover




Progressive Metal

3.53 | 15 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
3 stars 'Reflections' - X-Panda (53/100)

X-Panda made their debut to the world in 2011 with Flight of Fancy. I actually got a chance to hear it around the time that first album came out, and while I more or less branded them off as another Dream Theater hopeful at the time, they had at least made enough of an impression to remember flickers of the debut when a second album wheeled into view. Five years since the debut, it's clear that X-Panda have pushed their envelope beyond the confines of the jazz-tinged DT acolytes they used to be. Although they're still following prog metal convention a bit, their guiding influences have been expanded to include Nightwish and Muse.

The result is an album that feels practically buried in the weight of its ambition. On the one hand, trying to take after more than one band simultaneously is one way to come up with a more distinctive sound. It's a shame that pushing themselves forward has come at the cost of the things I liked most about Flight of Fancy. Where the mostly instrumental format gave a circa 2011 X-Panda the opportunity to flaunt their finesse, the vocal- based songwriting and flashy "cinematic" arrangements keep the band's core musicianship from shining out near as much. Full-blown orchestral arrangements, choral accompaniments and varied styles are all go-to placemarks for a rock band that is self-consciously pushing themselves to their limits. I think it's resulted in some very impressive ideas, but their evolution between albums doesn't seem so much an improvement as it is merely a transition to a new set of strengths and weaknesses.

X-Panda gave vocals a spin on a few songs from the debut. Bassist Tamar Nugis lent his voice to mixed results; at the least, it was a refreshing change of pace from the mostly instrumental arrangements they originally dabbled with. I wouldn't have thought a vocal-heavy X-Panda album would have been a great idea then, and I don't think so now. It's a really common pitfall for prog metal bands to include vocal at the cost of engaging instrumentation. It's hard to write vocal lines on top of crazy time signatures and busy arrangements, and vocal sections are often simplified to the point of sounding half the time like edgy AOR. Even if it wouldn't be fair to judge X-Panda by the same rubric as before, the vocal focus is the clear suspect that robbed them of their livelier parts. They have included these crazy film score orchestral parts perhaps as a way to compensate, but the whole way they go about it feels a greater part flash than substance. Much like Muse, their orchestra sounds big and conventionally epic, but there's little about it to justify its inclusion. Even the most basic orchestral scores take a ton of work to arrange, but this sounds like the predictable collection of bombastic flourishes and orchestration they could have mustered. To their credit, 9 out of 10 rock bands who opt to get classy with a backup orchestra fall short in much the same way.

Although I'd blame the album's shortcomings on the fact that they opted to get vocal on Reflections, it's not hurt by what they added so much as what they had to take away in the process. Nugis' voice might sound awkwardly thin and out-of-place fronting an expensive-sounding orchestra, but I wouldn't say his voice is bad at all. Nonetheless, knowing how to perform and compose effectively as an instrumental group carries a very different set of requirements than conventional songwriting. With average vocals to keep them from normally taking flight the way they should, and an unnecessary orchestra to further distract from the band, I think X-Panda's desire to move forward got in the way of their existing strengths. Unsurprisingly, my favourite track here is the one where they decided to fall back on old habits. "On the Way" is a familiar plunge into jazz fusion; it's pleasant and light enough, but it demonstrates they're still more than capable of bringing the best out of themselves. I respect X- Panda for trying to find a fresh identity. I don't think the evolution's worked out this time, but they've clearly lost none of that original potential.

Conor Fynes | 3/5 |


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